Babe Ruth-like, I recently left one publisher’s freelance employ and took up with a rival. Before bringing me into their freelance fold, the new organization put me through a couple of psychological tests, which revealed, among other things, that I am not graceful in receiving criticism.
Which enraged me, of course.
For two reasons, actually:
The first being my agreement with my pal Bill Sweetland who once refused to submit to a performance review because, he told his supervisor, "I know my faults in infinitely more detail than you ever will!"
More importantly: I’m a writer—a real writer. Most of the time, when I give you a work product, it means I’ve considered a number of approaches, painfully settled on one, sweated and reconsidered most lines at least twice, stood and applauded at a few of my own phrases and eventually gazed, exhausted, at the whole thing and thought: Yes. This works.
So if I seem a little uptight, or "defensive" or "sensitive" during our "feedback" session, it’s not because I think it’s impossible that my piece could be improved. It’s because I’m waiting for you to prove that you’ve thought about the product as hard as I have; it’s because I need you to prove that there really is something wrong with my creation, or something that could be more right. (And yes, I take it "personally"; I made it, didn’t I?)
When you prove your thoughtfulness, coherently explain the reasons behind your criticism, I’ll be fine. Indeed, if you help me improve my work, I will be grateful. And if you do this frequently enough over time, I’ll come to trust your judgment and look forward to hearing what you have to say. But until you do so, I’m going to sound a little uptight on the phone, okay? (Don’t you be so sensitive!) *
To all corporate types who think the highest of all human values is professionalism and the graceful acceptance of "constructive criticism," I reply in the words of a construction crew foreman I know who once told a client who was badgering him, "You think I’m unprofessional? You think I’m unprofessional? Well, fuck you!"
* Has anyone discovered a way to somehow defer the defensiveness until you’ve had a chance to consider the feedback fully? I would be grateful for that.
Gonzo, You are a fabulous writer and I think many of our colleagues will completely understand this scenario that you share. Many of us communicators (and real writers like you and a few others) are very passionate about what we do and as you describe above, put our blood, sweat and tears into our work. To have anyone, higher up or not, pompously look at us and give “constructive criticism” ignites many ires, I am sure. Especially since many of those giving feedback don’t necessarily have the experience and expertise communication professionals and writers do. That would be just one reason that they are not professional writers or communicators! With regards to how to handle it, well, I think you will hear many great suggestions. I’ve just smiled and counted to 10 while picturing myself slapping the person upside the head. Politeness, and keeping your head held high, well, that tends to drive them nuts. You know, the whole “keep smiling and people will wonder what you are up to” kind of thing.
First, it’s GREAT if you get your “feedback” over the phone, because that frees you up to roll your eyes liberally, which I strongly encourage.
Second, what works best for me is smugness. That’s right, I KNOW that these people who are telling me what I have to change about the words I’ve sweated and bled over, are doing so not because they have more skill in writing or editing than I have, not because they’ve lived more fully within whatever it is I’m writing about,and not EVEN because they care more about the topic or the writing than I do.
No, they are just trying to “get the thing out” because it’s only one of 50 other things they have to do today. And really, people like that, why would I stress over what they think? Sure, I may have to consider their changes because they have some power in their little corner of corporate-land, but I am not going to let them irk me. Then “the man” wins, and that cannot be allowed.
When they call you, roll your eyes (alot) and then SAY things like “Uh-Huh” and “Hmmm, interesting” and “Something to consider” while inside your head you are THINKING “You are a cretin” and “Stupidest thing I ever heard” and “I may change it but it won’t be because of anything YOU ever suggested, twerp.” Just make sure you don’t get the lists mixed up!
P.S. All that stuff about: “When you prove your thoughtfulness, coherently explain the reasons behind your criticism, I’ll be fine. Indeed, if you help me improve my work, I will be grateful. And if you do this frequently enough over time, I’ll come to trust your judgment and look forward to hearing what you have to say”…
Yeah, don’t hold your breath! Trust me, go with smugness!
David Murray says
Susan, Kristen, sound advice; but since I don’t always work for corporate philistines–and sometimes work with editors and publishers who are trying just as hard as I am to communicate–I do sometimes get really good advice. Not always, but more than half the time.
But I appreciate your highly developed finer skills–it would be fun to act this stuff out for an instructional video, wouldn’t it?–in pretending you appreciate the feedback!
Jane Greer says
Can I get an Amen? If there were any justice in this world, the people criticizing my writing would be good writers themselves, and we’d discuss our way to perfection. But there isn’t, they aren’t, and they get their feckless way because they’re paying. (That’s “feckless” with an “e.”)
Wait a sec. Why are you being given phycological tests to FREELANCE? It’s not like they’re trusting you with state secrets or asking you to be solely responsible for masses of schoolchildren. Why do you need phychological tests? For one thing, it’s not needed to do your job. For another, we writers are all NUTS by definition, right? I don’t get it.
David Murray says
Amy, two reasons:
1. I’ve got a pretty deep freelance relationship with these guys–working with various people on various projects; if you believe in psychological tests (which I pretty much told them I don’t) you’d definitely give one to someone with my role.
2. I think they wanted to verify that I was really a writer by making sure I came out crazy. I think I didn’t disappoint.